Add Up for Would-be Math Teacher
Wireless technology professional Kendra VanderMeulen started out on a different track
The start of Kendra VanderMeulen's career might be described as serendipitous. She would've been a math teacher if family circumstances hadn't curtailed her pursuit of a teaching certificate and forced her into the work world. One of the benefits of her first job, at AT&T Bell Laboratories, happened to be training in software programming--a little-known skill in 1973.
"I wasn't 100 percent sure what I was getting into, but it sounded like something worth learning about," VanderMeulen recalls in an interview for "Information Technology Leaders."
After that, nothing in her career was accidental. Despite being a woman and a non-engineer, she rose through the ranks at Bell Labs and AT&T, building an impressive track record in telecommunications technology. Thirty years later, words like "veteran" and "pioneer" best describe VanderMeulen's prominence in the wireless industry.
"Information Technology Leaders," produced by the University of Washingtons School of Business, presents multi-faceted portraits of the people filling the top IT positions at major corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and AT&T Wireless Services. The revealing interviews show that personal characteristics often play an important role in the unpredictable career trajectories of this industry.
From an early age, VanderMeulen was good at standing her ground. She wasn't afraid to march into the high-school principal's office and demand to be enrolled in advanced classes--Virginia educators believed that students transferring from California couldn't keep up. She finished 11th in a class of 800.
At Bell Labs, the research organization for AT&T, she needed to be assertive. Female employees were assumed to be secretaries. VanderMeulen chafed against restrictive views of working women, even getting married just to prove she could "have it all." What she didn't have was the engineering background or advanced degree necessary to succeed at the company.
Eventually, hard work and intelligence led to her promotion to membership in the prestigious technical staff. It came with a free master's degree. Studying computer science at Ohio State University, VanderMeulen says, "I learned why I took all that math."
She moved up quickly at Bell Labs, promoted to supervisor and then department head--the first woman in the job. She managed only men, some old enough to be her father. VanderMeulen admits her gender was an issue in the male-dominated IT world, but she reflects, "Once you demonstrate your capabilities, people forget."
VanderMeulen demonstrated what she could do while leading a team working on sound recognition. They successfully automated network monitoring, then developed speech-recognition technology that provided the foundation for a product line, Conversant Systems. That scored VanderMeulen the role of president of one of the internal venture companies Bell Labs created to commercialize its technology in the wake of AT&T's divestiture. After a real-world crash-course in business, she led her team to automate operator services for AT&T and to create voice-response technology.
A few years later, VanderMeulen felt she'd exhausted all interesting options in Columbus, Ohio, so she left AT&T and joined Cincinnati Bell Information Systems as president of the communications systems group and then chief of operations.
In 1994 she joined Seattle-based McCaw Communications as senior vice president. It was a step backward in title and in staff size, but by then VanderMeulen had realized, "Life is not just about the bigger title and the bigger office. Life is about having a blast while you're working." She pioneered wireless data at a time when most people didn't even use the Internet. Her team created the cellular digital packet data protocol and set up a nationwide network.
After McCaw became AT&T Wireless, VanderMeulen got involved with product strategy and development, launching products such as prepaid services and text-messaging services. In 1998 she recommended forming a multimedia subsidiary to support the company's stock offerings. Though she was the obvious choice to lead the venture, she found herself worn out. She took a sabbatical--the result of winning the Catherine B. Cleary Award, an honor for outstanding female leaders at AT&T--and returned to give her one-year notice. Some colleagues interpreted disloyalty in her departure, but VanderMeulen knew she was ready for something different.
Today she's an advisor and board member for several IT companies such as GoAhead Software and Thinkshare. She brings her wisdom and experience to struggling start-ups figuring out how to manage cash and growth as well as to public companies focused on stock prices. "I love the fact that I get to work with really smart people on really interesting problems," she says. "I get to do the fun stuff--the directional stuff."
Would she ever go back to the camaraderie and challenges of corporate life? VanderMeulen smiles. "Never say never."
Produced By: Christopher Redner
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